A startling wake-up call about appalling conditions prevailing in American schools, “The War on Kids” contradicts popular wisdom. Studded with news reports of extreme “zero tolerance” incidents (children expelled for possessing Ibuprofen or for pointing a chicken tender and saying “bang”), Cevin Soling’s docu posits that, far from being ridiculous exceptions to the rule as media coverage implies, such examples are endemic to a highly repressive, authoritarian institution whose sole purpose is to control and contain. Opening Nov. 18 at Gotham’s Quad Cinema, the pic should excite heated controversy less for its well-researched critique than for its proposed solution.
Soling deploys multiple tones and techniques: The docu is half-sarcastically divided into seven separate “lessons”; childlike voices identify similarly fenced-in buildings as either “prison” or “school”; snippets of 16mm educational films from the 1950s extol the virtues of cheerfulness and orderliness among children. The lion’s share of the film, however, is given over to interviews with impassioned educators, doctors, writers and the occasional traumatized student.
Concentrating not on inner-city but on middle-class districts, “The War on Kids” paints a bleak picture of what rampant paranoia (and a ballooning penitentiary-building economy) has wrought: metal detectors at every entry and exit, locked-down classrooms and libraries, armed police roaming hallways with drug-sniffing dogs, constant surveillance and the total regimentation of behavior. Real or imagined infractions are often instantly reported to the police; 10- and 11-year-olds appear in court with arms and legs shackled — all for offenses traditionally meriting parental intervention and/or a three-day suspension. Children have no redress, since the Supreme Court has methodically stripped them of civil rights.
For many of the experts interviewed, the tragic irony is that kids are being treated like criminals in order to protect them from dope addiction, while the pharmaceutical industry — with the complicity of ill-informed doctors, parents, school administrators and control-freaks of all persuasions — is force-feeding many of the best and brightest with dangerous, behavior-altering prescription drugs such as Ritalin.
Docu then takes a giant if seamless step forward to suggest that the entire system of compulsory learning is designed, in the words of an award-winning teacher, “to infantilize the mass mind and condition it to take orders in a docile fashion,” then leaps into left field by advocating home schooling as a viable alternative. Still, by and large, the docu’s closely reasoned case synchs up nicely with Soling’s freewheeling visual approach, including a satirical, vaguely Monty Python-esque animated sequence and the soundtrack’s sardonic series of peppy school-day songs.